THE BLOG
08/07/2013 03:19 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2013

Who Is Pope Francis, Really?

It is impossible to doubt Pope Francis's popularity. He's feeling the love everywhere he goes. I wonder, however, if this adulation is premature. Or is his fame really just the result of being a decent person who happened to have a crankpot predecessor?

Why the Pope Seems Different

There is no doubt that the contrasts between Benedict and Francis are strong. For starters, Pope Francis's gentle smile makes me think I would enjoy having a conversation over a cappuccino with him. That friendliness is dramatically different from the Emperor Palpatine-esque, Pope Benedict, who appropriately inspired many Star Wars memes.

Next, Francis wins people over with his very public attempts to embody -- maybe as far as a pope can today -- the legendary humility and poverty of his namesake. His choice of a Ford Focus, rather than his predecessor's customized BMW X5 and Mercedes, sends a far meeker message. While Pope Benedict was rumored to wear Prada shoes and donned highly decorative robes, Francis goes for the off-brand, plain old black footwear and colorless white robe. His minimalist fashion example has even turned on Italian designers to possible new trends. (Saint Francis of Assisi, by the way, would have walked on his bare feet wherever he went. Just sayin'.)

Lastly, Pope Francis began his ecclesiastical post offering two very controversial, but broadly welcomed statements. The first was on atheists, saying that "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone." Anticipating the objection,"But I don't believe, Father, I am an atheist!," he responded, "But do good: we will meet one another there."

To this surprising openness, the Vatican PR department objected -- I mean clarified -- by parroting Cyprian of Carthage's (ca. 200-58) motto, "there is no salvation outside of the church."

There is also Francis' recent comments about the dignity of those who are gay: "Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord? ... You can't marginalize these people." By contrast, Benedict was never all that shy on the judging others part, saying that gay men and women destroy the "essence of the human creature."

It does appear that Pope Francis has, to date, reflected the "culture of solidarity" he called for in Brazil, but does this really mean that we are looking at a potentially different Catholic church?

Where Things Are the Same

Consider the other recent move by the Vatican to offer plenary indulgences through Twitter. (Confession: I don't believe in indulgences or the existence of purgatory.)

According to the President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, one cannot simply follow the pope on Twitter to get an indulgence. If social media has created slacktivists, after all, I imagine this would be slackvation (salvation from the luxury of one's couch).

"It's not enough just to watch a Mass online or follow Pope Francis via live streaming on your iPad or by connecting to Pope2You.net," says the Pope's spokesperson. "What really counts is that the tweet that the Pope will send from Brazil or the photos from World Youth Day produce genuine spiritual fruit in the heart of the person."

Indulgences have a long history in Christianity. Able to be purchased, they were responsible for funding many expensive church projects, like the building of cathedrals. While I'm glad that the pope doesn't charge for a Twitter indulgence, I cannot but help see this as essentially the same old church. It's true that he's the pope, so perhaps we should expect holier tweets and less selfies from the papal restroom mirror. Nevertheless, this feels like a trivialization of purgatory, a place of torture -- though purification is the preferred idea -- and a place that must be (for devout Catholics) a dreaded future.

Doesn't the obtaining of an indulgence through Twitter imply a strangely petty God who, unless of course your heart is touched when reading the pope's tweet, is dead-set on painfully punishing inevitable human shortcomings that have already been forgiven?

During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, in which he opposed indulgences not only due to the monetization of religion which took advantage of the poor, but also because it delivered a message of callousness toward the plight of others. If Luther was tweeting today, I imagine he might respond with his "95 Tweets," and one might look like this:

@TheOriginalLutheran: "What greater blessing could come...than if the pope...did a 100X a day what he...does once on Twitter, & bestow on every believer these remissions."

Then there are Francis' radical statements. Francis does not want to judge those who are gay, but this does not mean that the church or Francis now sees the LGBT community differently. Being gay is still considered a sin. Much the same, being an atheist is still a damnable offense. And when it comes to the ordination of women, another area of concern for many Catholics, Francis has made it very clear "that door is closed."

Francis does appear to have a kinder and caring nature. Jesus too cared about the poor and befriended the outcasts. Showing the same spirit as Jesus, however, is really a minimal job requirement for someone whose role is to represent a global branch of Christianity. Perhaps this surprise at Francis says more about Benedict than it does the new pope.

His Story Is Yet to Be Told

Lastly, I do hope that a church that claims millions of followers worldwide would become the best version of itself that it can. I also understand that Catholic Christians have invested a lot of hope for change in Francis. There are questions yet to be answered. Will he be the pope of American Catholics, who according to the New York Times/CBS News poll from March, want a far more liberal and radically different church? Or will he be a pope of the far more conservative Global South? Will power corrupt him? Will he revitalize the Catholic faith?

The Christian philosopher Boethius said that "high offices cannot make a person worthy of respect." If you are Catholic, make him work for your honor every day he's in that ecclesiastical office. Hold his feet to the fire. If his papacy is like any other office, the only way to judge it is when his work is complete.

With less than a year under his belt, the pope's story is not yet written and the world really doesn't know who he is.